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Tohono O'odham Nation builds to recover the past, nurture the future

TUCSON, Ariz. - Sixty miles southwest of Tucson, with a view of sacred Baboquivari Mountain and sited amidst the Native plants traditionally used for food and medicine, the Tohono O'odham Nation has built a cultural center and museum that are becoming the focus of community life and history.

The complex, designed by Durant Architects of Tucson, took two years to complete, but it has been in many people's minds for decades.

''When they were getting ready to demolish the old office building,'' project administrator Bernard Siquieros said, ''people went in to salvage old documents. Among the things they found was a proposal to build a cultural center for the Papago Tribe from back in the 1950s. Many people felt that it was an important project to preserve our history and culture, and we have the resources to do it now through gaming.''

The project, from its inception to the groundbreaking, has truly been a community effort honoring the traditions of the tribe. Groundbreaking was accomplished with a digging stick fashioned by elders from ironwood branches. Not only did the dignitaries on hand get to turn the earth, so did all of the other 200 people - from kids to grandmothers - who gathered for the ceremony.

''A group sense of ownership is important,'' Siquieros said. ''We're encouraging people to get involved in all sorts of ways.''

The 5,000-square-foot cultural center opened to tribal members about eight months before its official opening in June. It contains two classrooms, artists' work and demonstration areas, an amphitheater with a stage and sound system, a room dedicated to elders and two traditional ramadas, one of which was donated by a family in memory of their father and grandfather. A women's gathering of about 300 people was held there, as were various meetings and a couple's 10th anniversary celebration.

The museum currently houses an exhibit of artwork by 10 contemporary tribal members and four exhibits pertaining to the tribe's history - the land before European contact; traditional foods, both collected and cultivated by irrigating with flood waters and water diverted from streams; traditional and modern leadership; and language.

''We talked to people about what they wanted, and these were the subjects most often mentioned,'' Siquieros said. The language exhibit is interactive, with kiosks where visitors can see and hear the various dialects. ''Since they are all saying the same sentence, people can hear how the dialects differ,'' Siquieros said.

A veterans exhibit, which occupies the entire hallway, consists of donated items such as uniforms, sabers and rifles, and artwork showing traditional warriors, as well as an interactive station where visitors can listen to interviews with vets.

''This exhibit will grow as time goes on,'' Siquieros said, as will be the collection of artifacts on display.

While the nation is asking for items to be returned under provisions of the Native American Graves and Protection Repatriation Act, human remains and funerary objects will not be housed in the museum but will be kept in a separate space until they are ready for reburial, Siquieros said. The nation is also asking for other items to be returned from museums and collections around the country, including the National Museum of the American Indian in

Washington, D.C.

The requests will be based on the geography from which the items were removed.

''Our creation story says that we have been here from the beginning of time,'' Siquieros said, ''so we will be looking for whatever was taken from here since time immemorial.''

The museum will also be gathering materials for an archive of photographs, manuscripts and books related to the tribe's more recent history.

''We hope to have at least a copy of every relevant document,'' Siquieros said.

The Tohono O'odham Nation is located on about 2.8 million acres in the Sonoran Desert. The site for the cultural center and museum was carefully chosen and the contractors were asked to disturb as little of the landscape as possible.

''We chose this site because you can see our sacred mountain from here,'' Siquieros said, ''and because it is off the main road and very serene. An eight-foot-wide window in the elders' room overlooks the mountain and is etched with our symbol of life, the man in the maze.''